Melekh matzmiach y’shuah; “sovereign who causes redemption to flourish.”
As I have countless times, I prayed those words on Shabbat morning. They come in the opening passages of the Amidah, the standing Jewish Prayer of Prayers. This particular Shabbat followed shortly after a visit to UNC Asheville by Tamika Mallory, co-president of the Women’s March.
Matzmiach: in Siddur Lev Shalem, the prayerbook we use in Congregation Beth Israel, an independent, traditional, egalitarian synagogue, matzmiach is translated as “causes to flourish.” The word is based on the root word tzemach, which means both “to grow” and “to plant.”
That morning when I said those words aloud, I wondered, where are the seeds of redemption planted? In whom? In what fertile soil?
The power of Mallory’s visit and the intensity of campus and community conversations, some including Ms. Mallory herself, before, during, and after her visit still resonating in me, I wondered if the seeds of redemption are planted in Tamika Mallory. Or maybe they are planted in the women’s march movement led by Mallory and three other women. Or maybe they are planted in the small group of Jewish community leaders, UNC Asheville faculty members and administrators, students, and community activists who had the privilege of sitting in a circle with Mallory in candid, compassionate conversation with her while she was in town to deliver the keynote speech of MLK, Jr. week at UNC Asheville.
The lead-up to Mallory’s visit was not without a significant amount of controversy. I learned that she was coming on December 23, the day the New York Times published an article on the controversy surrounding the leaders of the Women’s March, including Mallory’s alleged anti-Semitism.
Uh-oh, I thought.
I happened to be in Mexico City, resting in a lovely B & B in the Condessa neighborhood after a full day of activity, when I was copied on a message to UNC Asheville’s Chancellor, alerting her to the story and the “problem” with Mallory. Trouble knows no borders, neither of space nor time.
It didn’t take long before word spread on the internet and media outlets throughout the U.S. and in Israel of Mallory’s upcoming talk at UNC Asheville. The headlines: “UNC Asheville Hosts Farrakhan-Tied Women’s March Leader for MLK Day Speech” (Breitbart); “OUTRAGEOUS! Women’s March co-president Tamika Mallory will deliver a keynote address January 24th as a part of UNC Asheville annual Martin Luther King Jr. Week” (CAMERA on Campus); “Tamika Mallory Irks North Carolina Jews With MLK Day Speech In Asheville” (The Forward); “For UNC, Silent Sam = HATE, while Farrakhan is OK” (The Daily Haymaker); “UNC-Asheville, What More Do You Need? – Tamika Mallory Still Won’t Condemn Farrakhan’s Anti-Semitism – Rescind Her Invite to Keynote at MLK Event” (Zionist Organization of America). And the emails and phone calls–some reasonable, some angry and threatening–pressuring the university to disinvite Ms. Mallory came in by the hundreds.
As the Director of UNC Asheville’s Center for Jewish Studies, I was called upon to assist the Chancellor and other members of the Chancellor’s team to help the university navigate a very challenging situation.
I was in a difficult spot. I stood with the university’s decision not to disinvite Ms. Mallory. I stood with the leaders of Asheville’s Jewish community who argued that disinviting her would not only be inappropriate for a university but it also would be harmful to Jewish-Black relations in Asheville and beyond. At the same time, I myself felt hurt by some of the things Mallory was reported to have said about Jews and hurt more deeply by the hateful, virulent anti-Semitic things said by Farrakhan. As someone who teaches a class on the Holocaust and the Arts, I know where such speech can lead. So, I understood, in part, the intense responses of some members of the Jewish community, locally and nationally.
At the suggestion of one of the leaders of the Western North Carolina branch of Carolina Jews for Justice, I helped arrange a private meeting of Ms. Mallory, leaders (including two of our rabbis) of most of the Jewish organizations in Asheville, four students (the two current UNC Asheville Hillel co-presidents and the two immediate past co-presidents), two members of the UNC Asheville faculty, Chancellor Nancy Cable, and Yavilah McCoy, a Jewish woman of color who was recently appointed to the 32 member steering committee of the Women’s March and who has been a national leader of initiatives for equity, inclusion, and justice, including for Jews of Color, for many years.
Honestly, I did not know what to expect going into that meeting. We called for conversation, not confrontation. At the beginning of the session, I invited participants to let go, to whatever extent was possible, of their agendas coming into the meeting—what they felt they needed to say, what they needed to hear from Ms. Mallory, from each other. I invited everyone in the room, including Ms. Mallory to speak mostly not as a representative of a group but of their personal experiences and to reflect mostly on their experiences since the publication of that New York Times story.
What did participants share with each other? We have all experienced and continue to experience deep pain. Words have been spoken that have hurt us. There is racism in the Jewish community. There is anti-Semitism in the Black community. Remembering—historical memory—is important. Memory is a privilege. Mistakes have been been made. White privilege, racism, anti-Semitism, trans- and homophobia not only hurt but divide us, making it harder to work together to repair the broken the world. We are learning. We are listening, listening deeply to each other’s stories.
There were broken hearts in that room. Tears. And compassion. And love. Twice, Tamika Mallory rose, walked across to the other side of the circle, and offered loving hugs to participants whose stories ended in tears and left us all, hearts cracked open, aching to offer whatever healing we could to those broken souls.
The hour ended. One participant said to me that what we had created was a holy space, a holy experience.
Had it not been for Tamika Mallory, her generosity of spirit, her willingness to step into what might have been a fiercely confrontational space, we would not have come together to listen to each other, to hear each other. To heal, even if only a little.
In whom are the seeds of redemption, salvation, and liberation planted? On the Shabbat following Ms. Mallory’s visit, I didn’t exactly think they were planted in her. It wasn’t an act of thinking at all. I was praying, and I had an intuition, a teeny revelation, if that’s not too strong a word. Just as plants need fertile soil in which to grow and flourish, and soil may be fertilized with waste—shit—, maybe it’s in the soil of our own shit—black and white, Jew and Christian and Muslim and Buddhist and Hindu and . . . ; straight and queer; maybe it’s in the soil of our suffering and compassion, of our mistakes and our willingness to hear and learn from each other’s stories—maybe that’s the soil in which the seeds of justice, equity, inclusion, compassion and love are mostly likely to grow.
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Written by: Richard Chess
Richard Chess is the author of four books of poetry, Love Nailed to the Doorpost (University of Tampa Press 2017), Tekiah, Chair in the Desert, and Third Temple. His work has been included in Century of American Jewish Poetry, Bearing the Mystery: Twenty Years of IMAGE, and Best Spiritual Writing 2005. He is the Roy Carroll Professor of Honors Arts and Sciences at the University of North Carolina at Asheville. He is also the director of UNC Asheville’s Center for Jewish Studies. Find more at www.richardchess.com.